If you looked up “playing to the level of your competition” in the dictionary, you might find the 2019-2020 Philadelphia 76ers.

I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a team play so well at home and so poorly on the road, with such a distinct variance between their ceiling and floor. We’re talking about a team that’s 22-2 at the Wells Fargo Center, with wins over the Bucks and Lakers, yet they’re 9-16 on the road with losses to the Hawks, Magic, and Wizards, three teams with a combined record of 50-94.

The Sixers will head into February with a 31-18 record, so if they want to hit the 50 win mark for the third straight season, they’ll have to finish at least 19-14 over their final 33 games. That looks easy enough on paper, but consider the fact that they still have the following road games on the schedule:

  • at Boston
  • at Miami
  • at Milwaukee
  • at Milwaukee
  • at Clippers
  • at Lakers
  • at Spurs
  • at Pelicans

Could be a little hairy in February, March, and April, and even then, 50 wins probably doesn’t you the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference this season. Imagine a Sixers team just sort of waddling into the playoffs at 50-32 as the #5 seed. What a disappointment that would be.

As for last night’s game, the Sixers didn’t defend well, didn’t shoot very well, didn’t show much effort or urgency, and Joel Embiid couldn’t hit his foul shots. Furkan Korkmaz and Raul Neto couldn’t hit anything. The entire squad looked disjointed and couldn’t put together a meaningful run, getting beat on the glass in the process.

But other than all of that, they played well.

Giving up easy baskets

We’ve known from the beginning that the Sixers are going to have to compete defensively if they’re going to do anything in the playoffs. They’re actually built for the postseason because of the way they can crank it up on the defensive end and use their size and length to disrupt opponents.

They didn’t do any of that last night, giving up 127 points to a team that averages 109 per game. Trae Young, specifically, was allowed to run rampant to the tune of 39 points and a career-high 18 assists, some of which you can see here:

There’s a lot going on in that clip. You have some defensive ball watching in the paint, which allows the roller to finish plays when Young seems bottled up. You have Embiid playing “centerfield” or drop coverage but failing to impact either pick and roll player from saggy elbow positions. You have Ben Simmons going over a screen and Young still hitting a ridiculous shot anyway.

To the point about drop coverage, they play this with Embiid because he’s athletic enough to sit back and deny lobs while the first defender can go over the screen and push the ball handler off the three point line. But sometimes when you have a slippery guy like Young who can fire from a few feet behind the arc, you’ll see these screens that are set incredibly high and put Embiid in more compromising middle ground positions, like this:

That’s outrageously high, actually a screen that comes during a quick transition opportunity. Neto goes over, has  trouble skirting Damian Jones, and then Embiid is playing higher than he would like to. Look at where Young is when he throws this lob to Jones for the dunk:

He’s throwing that alley oop from just inside the three-point line. Jones isn’t even in the paint yet. Embiid is standing at the elbow, which is where he’d typically start when defending a pick and roll. It’s interesting to observe, and even when they did do okay initially, they had trouble rotating, helping, bringing that third defender over from the baseline, and keeping an eye on the roll man. There were numerous times where Young seemed bottled up and was still able to slip a pocket pass for his roller anyway.

With Josh Richardson out, and Matisse Thybulle picking up a couple of early fouls, pretty much every Sixer got a shot at defending Young at some point in the game, be it on a straight matchup, switch, or cross-match:

Young shot 2-9 against Simmons and 7-13 against everybody else, but it was passing the ball and shooting free throws that really killed the Sixers. They just didn’t look disciplined defensively and the energy level stayed on a low setting throughout the night, when you really need it to be cranked up to 9, 10, or 11.

Establishing post position

They didn’t play through Embiid in the post nearly enough and he didn’t shoot the ball after the 3:11 mark in the fourth quarter.

Why? I don’t know, but look at the shots Embiid took last night:

He took 14 shots and six were three pointers.

Most of what you see in that highlight reel is elbow stuff and the old two-man JJ Redick game, this time with Shake Milton. And look, I get that Ben Simmons was playing well and finishing at the rim and the tempo was working for a while, but there are enough possessions in a game to get Embiid his necessary post touches, and they didn’t do that against a team down a couple bigs and already exhibiting lackluster rim protection. That runs counterintuitive to what worked in Atlanta the first time, which is when they got the ball to Embiid late and even ran that high/low post entry coming out of the timeout to get him to the line in a 105-103 win. He scored 36 against the Hawks back in October on 19 shots but wasn’t featured as much this time around.

Other notes:

  • The officiating was atrocious last night. Just farcical with the Tobias Harris and Brett Brown situation there.
  • The Sixers got to the line an amazing 45 times last night but only hit 32 of their shots, which is 71%. Atlanta shot 86.5% from the line, 32-37.
  • Never should you ever concede 52 points in the paint to the Atlanta Hawks.
  • Only 12 turnovers is very good.
  • Shake played well, 7-12 from the floor 5-9 from three, 8-10 from the line, six assists and one turnover. He did some nice Redick-looking things in the two-man game and has really taken advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.
  • Korkmaz and Neto shot 0-13.
  • Kyle O’Quinn, Trey Burke, and Jonah Bolden continue to rack up DNPs.

Have a fantastic Friday.